Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


"Brickmason, farmer, minister of the gospel, railroad director and capitalist."

(pages 481 - 486)

The subject of the following sketch was born in Hanover County, Virginia, April 20, 1801, and is of Scotch-Irish descent. He was converted in the twenty-second year of his age and joined a Presbyterian church in Richmond, Virginia. January 9, 1823, he was married to a Miss Frances Henley. This  union was blessed with a family of ten children, four sons and six daughters. To settle the church-and-baptism question, his wife, being a Baptist, proposed that they read the New Testament together, marking the passages pro and con. The husband assenting, the critical reading contest was begun. At the close of almost every chapter "Frankie" would score a point against her husband and in her own favor. The husband. little discouraged but not despairing, kept thinking it would be "better further on," especially in the Acts, where he expected to find comfort from the baptism of the jailer and his household On reaching that point, however, it did not read just as he expected to find it, and as he had so often heard it quoted. It was a "household," it seemed, of gospel hearers and  believers that was baptized. He took the passage to his pastor, who, reading it carefully and with looks of surprise confessed that the passage favored the Baptist position. Four  some time the unequal contest went on, but finally the surrender  was made - "Frankie" and the truth had triumphed. The husband joined the Neriah Baptist Church, Rockbridge County, Virginia, and was baptized by Volentine M. Mason.

In  1826 he came to East Tennessee, bought government land at $1.50 an acre, and settled down in Sweetwater Valley, uniting  with the old Sweetwater Church, then under the pastoral care of Elder Eli Cleveland. For some years he served deacon and clerk of the church, but in 1833 he was ordained to the larger work of the gospel ministry, becoming a true "yoke-fellow" with Elder Cleveland, who was twenty years his senior. Both of them were well-to-do farmers, owning fine property, and liberal with their means. Each of them contributed $500 toward building the old Sweetwater meeting-house, besides furnishing negroes to help in the building enterprise, boarding the hands, making the brick, and each with his own hands putting a large portion of the bricks into the walls of the building. Brother Snead also gave liberally of his leans towards the establishment of the Cleveland, the Jonesboro, the First Knoxville, and other churches, while those churches were yet struggling for an existence.

He served faithfully as pastor the following churches: Pond Creek (now Sweetwater), some twenty years; Madisonville. Riceville, and Liberty, a number of years; Old Sweetwater (after the death of the old shepherd, Father Cleveland), for a time, and an "Arm" of the last mentioned church establish at Philadelphia. Though frequently urged by Father Cleveland to take charge of the old Sweetwater Church, he would not consent to do so as long as the old shepherd was able, even in a feeble way, to get about among the members of his devoted flock.

As a self-made man Robert Snead is a striking example of the power of invincible will and persistent energy in overcoming difficulties and surmounting obstacles. With few advantages of an education in early life and with only the help of books and newspapers in later life, he forged his way to success. Beginning with the English Bible as his only textbook and library, he read and mastered that - reading slowly, I have been told, as if spelling each word. But, with a giant mind and a regal will that triumphed over difficulties and  made stepping stones of obstacles in the way, he rose to eminence, self-educated, and able to grapple the profound questions of theology and the great problems of human life and destiny. He was a great student of the Scriptures. His delight was in the law of the Lord. It was his habit through life to rise at 4 o'clock in the morning, to read and meditate upon the Holy Scriptures.

Brother Snead, it should be said, was a great missionary spirit. Sent out by Pond Creek (Sweetwater) Church, traveled at his own expense, one whole summer, making a campaign of the churches in the interest of missions, indoctrinating  backward churches, stimulating them to greater liberality, and enlisting the unenlisted in missionary endeavor.

As a speaker and reasoner, Elika Taylor says of him: "He was a masterly reasoner and strong debater. His command of the English Bible was perfect. By reading and close study he had acquired a good use of grammar and a fine command of language. His style of pulpit discourse was such as few speakers attain to."

As a doctrinal preacher he was unsurpassed. He had an analytic mind and was a profound thinker, yet he was as sirmple as he was profound. His mental force, his strong grasp of the truth, his simplicity, made him "mighty in the Scriptures." Dr. W. A. Montgomery's testimony was: "There was not a brainier man or a more profound thinker in the State. An abler doctrinal preacher I have never, heard. I have heard a number of our great preachers, but have never heard a sermon that had such a profound and overwhelming effect upon a congregation as Robert Snead's sermon on the Judgment, at Philadelphia, Tennessee. His text was Eccl. 11:9: "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; . . . and walk in the ways of thy heart and in the sight of thine eyes,' etc. 'Why not?' said the preacher. `Doesn't the Bible say so? And what harm can it be? But as the sinners of his congregation were giving a loose rein to fancy and were high up in the seventh heaven of sensual delight and picturing to themselves still greater pleasure in sinning, the preacher broke in, `But I have quoted only a part of my text. Will you hear the rest?'   'But know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.' Sinners tumbled from their seats, all over the house, and cried for mercy, as though the day of doom were already come and they had been brought before the judgment bar of an offended God, to give an account for the deeds done in the body."

As a presiding officer of deliberative bodies he was able and distinguished. He was fourteen years Moderator of the Sweetwater Association, was Moderator of the East Tennessee General Association, more than once, we believe, and for years was prominent in the councils of his brethren. Only once was it the writer's privilege to look upon Brother Snead in a public gathering of representative Baptists - he towered like Saul in the midst of his brethren. To see him was to be impressed by the massive strength of his physique and the intellectual mould of his face.

As a debater, it is said, he showed himself not only a master in argument, but a skilled strategist in the use of military tactics. The following anecdote will illustrate: After a public debate with a Pedo-Baptist opponent, in which he had adroitly baited his adversary into a trap - having gotten him so completely committed that he couldn't back down from his position - he was talking to a friend about the matter, and used this illustration: When he was a. boy, he said, he used to kill snakes about old mill-ponds and other places. Very often, he said, in killing a snake he would strike too soon, before the snake had got its head well out of the hole, and so would miss it. He learned by experience to wait till the snake got so far out that he couldn't get his head back before he could give him a whack with his stick. In this way he would get his head every time. From the art of snake-killing he had learned a lesson in debating. He would wait till his opponent got well out of his hole before striking. Take off the head of error he would, and although the act involved the metaphorical beheading of his opponent, he didn't consider that he had thereby made any breach of the law of charity, which "rejoiceth not in iniquity, or error, but rejoiceth with the truth."

Having lost his first companion, Brother Snead was married, a second time, December 7, 1852 to Samantha M. McReynolds.  This union brought one other child to the home, a daughter, now Mrs. S.E. Young, of Sweetwater.

The last year of his life Brother Snead was a great sufferer. He was afflicted with cancer of the mouth, an incurable disease. To obtain the best medical skill available he moved to Knoxville, but it was only a matter of time when his strong physical frame would have to yield to the fell destroyer. From his residence in Knoxville, March 29, 1878, the heroic sufferer went up to the realm where there is no "night" of pain, no "shadow" of death. All the days in which death was approaching with steady step the victorious sufferer was constantly repeating the ever blessed fourteenth chapter of John, "Let not your heart be troubled . . . . In my Father's house are many mansions . . . . I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and receive you unto myself," etc. the text from which his pastor, Dr. J. F. B. Mays, preached his funeral discourse. "Why should I complain?" he would say, "knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope." Feebly uttering as his last words, "Glory to God!" he sunk into the painless sleep of death,

"Calm as to a night's repose,
Like flowers at set of sun."


Burnett, J .J.  Sketches of  Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers.  Nashville, Tenn.:  Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.


[ Return to Index ]

HTML presentation of this material is
Copyright 2002  by Rose-Anne Cunningham Bray.
All rights reserved.